Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 18 News List

An old story, but a good one from a prize-winning author

Ma Jian looks at how a society numbed by dictatorship finds its way in the modern world

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

The Noodle Maker
By Ma Jian
Chatto & Windus
203 pages

There are two reservations to be made about this book, neither of them serious. For the rest it's a readable fictional foray into more-or-less familiar territory from the prize-winning author of Red Dust.

The first reservation is that this book, though hot off the presses this month in English, was copyrighted in its original Chinese version in 1993. This means that, rather than being a much-awaited follow-up to Ma Jian's (馬健) successful debut, it in fact pre-dates Red Dust in the scenes it describes, and the period of Chinese history it evokes.

This is an old story. Publishers have always been eager to capitalize on successes, and, when an author despairs of producing something up to the level of his first careless rapture, routinely assure him it doesn't matter. Surely he has something he's written in his youth that can be dusted down and presented as his newest thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of happiness?

The second reservation concerns more closely the book itself. It's supposedly a novel about a "professional writer" (this is how he's regularly described) who displays for the benefit of his friend some stories he would like to publish, had he the courage. After the initial setting out of this situation, the book consists of seven of these stories. They're linked together here and there, but only nominally.

This is in fact another very familiar phenomenon, namely that of publishers contriving to issue a series of short stories in a format that suggests they are, in fact, a novel.

In the case of this book, the author has been persuaded -- or has persuaded himself -- to link the stories together to give them the illusion of being integral parts of a whole. It's not a fudge, but nonetheless for the reader keen to have a long story to get lost in, this may prove a shortcoming.

These two points out of the way, what about the book's qualities -- its feeling, its imaginative world? Essentially, the spirit is black comedy. Ma kicks off his set of anecdotes with one about a man who decides to benefit from the Open Door Policy (this, remember, is the early 1990s) by starting up a private crematorium. So -- what are the comic possibilities inherent in this scenario? You can almost list them before you start reading.

One, the ashes due to be returned to the families get mixed up, but it doesn't matter as they'll never know. Two, the ceremonial garments used to dress the corpses, unknown to the relatives, in fact get re-used to save on overhead. Three, the smell coming from the burning unit is, at least to begin with, actually quite appetizing. And so on.

All good short stories have to have a strong ending. So how does Ma end the story he's opted to place first in his series? Well, we'll give this one away and promise to keep quiet about the rest. He decides to slip someone into the furnace alive. Who? Who else but his old mother, though as an extra twist she's allowed to happily agree to the arrangement so long as the right music's played -- a song Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had specifically banned.

The pattern of all the subsequent stories is immediately apparent from this first one. The action of grotesque -- this is the one essential requirement. The opportunity is then used to introduce strong political satire (Ma Jian now lives in London, so there are no problems there). And the final synthesis is a hilarious, scandalous synthesis that, as the publishers hope critics will remark, displays the absurdities and cruelties of modern (in fact not-so-modern) China.

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